(YDR) Bill and Lori Fitzell met Chantal John while vacationing in St. Maarten. Chantal worked as a waitress and would wait on them as they lounged on the beach, bringing them drinks and sandwiches and whatnot.
They got along with Chantal. Bill spoke to her about Les Brown, a motivational speaker he liked, and encouraged the young woman to look up his materials, to set her sights higher than serving drinks at a beach resort.
She was their waitress in St. Maarten. Lori and Bill Fitzell brought her to Emigsville after Hurricane Irma. Paul Kuehnel
Not that it was a bad job. Chantal, like many on the tiny Carribean Island, worked in the tourism industry, which is the basis for St. Maarten’s economy.
The last time they saw her in St. Maarten was just a few days before Hurricane Irma hit the island. At the time, the hurricane was still out to sea and hadn’t gathered much strength. They didn’t even talk about the potential storm, just exchanging pleasantries and chatting.
On Sept. 6, Irma made landfall.
By then, it was a Category 5 storm, the highest category, bringing torrential rain and winds approaching 200 mph.
Bill and Lori saw news of the hurricane and the devastation it left in its wake. They hoped that Chantal and her family made it through all right. They wondered whether they’d ever see her again.
Chantal John’s family has lived in St. Maarten for about 30 years. It’s a tiny island, only 13 square miles, with a population of about 33,000. Her father works for a car rental agency and her mother cooks at the Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa, a high-end resort on the eastern shore of the Dutch side of the island, which is also Chantal’s employer. She has a sister, two brothers and two half-brothers, living in a small house inland from the beach.
The place, as Chantal describes it, is paradise. The weather is always balmy. Every spring, the island celebrates carnival with a month-long celebration. Life there is laid-back, lived at a relaxed pace. It is a peaceful place, considered one of the safest places in the Carribean for travelers.
The island had weathered storms. In Chantal’s lifetime – she’s 25 – she recalls only one big storm, Hurricane Luis, in 1995, when she was just a toddler. Luis devastated the island, but she was too young then to really remember how bad it was.
It turned out that Luis, while bad, was nothing like the storm that approached St. Maarten in early September.
Chantal’s family huddled in the living room of their boarded-up home as the storm struck. The pressure from the 200-mph winds was so great that you had to cover your ears.
After the storm, it was nearly complete destruction. Buildings were destroyed. The power was out and there was no indication that it would be coming back anytime soon. She saw a shipping container that had been blown onto her sister’s car and part of a neighbor’s house. A couch that had been on the front porch simply disappeared. They had no idea where it landed.
When she went outside the morning after the storm, she cried. “It was like the world was turned upside down,” she said, “or got shaken very hard.” Cars were overturned. Homes were missing roofs.
She heard one story about a man who had been nearly sliced in half by a metal roof as it was ripped from his home. He bled to death because nobody could come to his aid. She heard about a couple who had been swept away by the rising ocean. The woman’s body was found in the sea, her clothing stripped off. Her husband’s body was never recovered.
In the wake of the storm, paradise turned ugly. Looting was rampant. Violence erupted. People were so desperate for basic necessities that they resorted to any means to secure them. People were killed over a bottle of water or a sandwich.
One night, her boyfriend was stabbed in the arm. They were driving to his house when his car approached another vehicle coming from the opposite direction. The narrow road was made narrower by debris and the cars couldn’t pass. The other driver and her boyfriend had an altercation and the man stabbed her boyfriend, the blade of the knife going through his left forearm. By the time she got him to the hospital, he was nearly unconscious from blood loss. They were both covered with blood. His assailant was never caught, she said.
The days dragged on. The Dutch – her side of the island is under Dutch control while the French govern the northern half – sent in the Marines to restore order and provide security. There were no jobs. Electricity service was spotty. The Westin had been nearly destroyed and would have to be torn down.
It was a desperate situation.
Bill and Lori followed the heartbreaking news from St. Maarten, and immediately their thoughts turned to Chantal and her family. They had to do something. They own the Emig Mansion, a historical bed and breakfast in Emigsville, and they had plenty of room, so they decided to invite Chantal and her family to stay with them as the island recovers. What it came down to was “if something happened to her and I had done nothing, I couldn’t live with myself,” Bill said.
There was one problem – they didn’t know Chantal’s last name. He searched the Westin’s Facebook page, and that led him to Chantal’s page. He sent her a message.
“Chantal, this is Bill. I talked to you a few weeks ago. Remember Les Brown, homework, live your dreams, etc. We’ve been worried about you especially and many of the staff in St. Maarten. If you need a place to come to stay for (a while) please come stay with us. I will pay for your airline tickets. I can take about 6 people if you have family that needs a place. God bless you all. Feel helpless. Would like to help.”
Chantal was stunned. She had to read the message several times to make sure it said what she thought it said. She was amazed that Bill and Lori would make such a generous offer.
But it would be hard to leave home and her family. She talked it over with her family. She prayed about it.
Then she decided. She would go. “I just left,” she said. “I took the chance.”
She arrived Oct. 26, flying from St. Maarten to Atlanta and then on to Baltimore. In Atlanta, she was detained briefly by the Customs Service. The Customs officer had a lot of questions. He found it odd that this young woman would accept an invitation to go live with people she barely knew and peppered her with questions, most circling around the notion that she was going to somewhere she had never been before to live with people she had met just a few times. He mentioned “human trafficking.” The Customs officer called Bill and grilled him. Apparently, the answers satisfied him, and he let Chantal continue her journey.
She arrived at BWI at nearly midnight. Bill and Lori watched as people from her flight streamed into the arrivals area. They had a hard time finding her. They didn’t recognize her. She wasn’t wearing her waitress uniform.
They brought her home and got her settled. She had family dinners and met people in Emigsville. She shopped for warm clothing, going to thrift stores to buy a coat and jeans and sweaters. At home, she never had to dress for cold weather. She had sweaters, but she wore them to ward off the chill from the air conditioning when she went to the movies. The first time she was outside in the cold weather and saw her breath, she said, “It was cool.”
Sitting in the library of the Emig Mansion, she said coming here brings tears to her eyes. “It makes me want to cry,” she said, “but a good cry.”
She said, “I’ve met a lot of nice people in my 25 years of living, but not like this. I’m a stranger to these people, and they greeted me into their home. It just goes to show you that we have some awesome people in this world.”
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